"Huffing" and Driving, Chesterfield Man Crashes into Urgent Care Killing One
On October 18, 2020, a 20-year-old man from Chesterfield, Missouri, lost control of his vehicle after inhaling solvent fumes, or "whip its". Mr. Geiger's vehicle then crossed oncoming traffic before hitting a tree, pole and eventually a young woman as she exited the Urgent Care. The vehicle came to rest halfway inside the main entrance. Due to the severity of her injuries, the young woman passed away en route to the hospital.
Per the arresting officer, as reflected in the Probable Cause Statement, Mr. Geiger was found unconscious behind the wheel of his car, until he woke up, grabbed several "whip it" canisters and attempted to discard them in a nearby wooded area.
News Five reported, "Ballwin police announced Trenton Geiger, a 20-year-old man from Chesterfield, was charged with first-degree involuntary manslaughter, inhalation of solvent fumes and tampering with physical evidence."1 A Felony Complaint followed suit on October 19, 2020 when the St. Louis Count Prosecuting Attorney's office filed a two-count Felony Complaint against Mr. Geiger. The Compliant charges him with the class C felony of Involuntary Manslaughter in the First Degree and the class E felony of Tampering with Physical Evidence in Felony Prosecution.
What are Solvents?
As noted, the Ballwin police stated that Mr. Geiger was partly arrested for inhaling solvents. solvents are essentially any substance which can be used to break down another substance. For example, the substance of water is a solvent when used in connection with the substance sugar, as sugar dissolves in water.
Under Missouri law, it is illegal to smell or inhale a solvent for the purpose of intoxication. Intoxication in this sense encompasses a broad array of effects, such as dizziness, stupefaction, euphoria, or any effects which alter the user's sense perceptions of vision, hearing or mental processes.
Missouri law bans the use of any solvents for this purpose but the Missouri Legislature specifically lists the following: toluol, amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, cyclohexyl nitrite, ethyl nitrite, pentyl nitrite, and propyl nitrite and their iso-analogues.
Involuntary Manslaughter- 1st Degree
In the State of Missouri, a person is charged with Involuntary Manslaughter in the First Degree when the State believes that the death of another person was caused recklessly by the Defendant. In other words, the State has to prove that Mr. Geiger acted in such a way as to ignore a likely and dangerous outcome when others would not have done so.
A person acts recklessly when he or she consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that circumstances exist or that a result will follow and such disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise in the situation.
The Court further explained that recklessness "resembles knowing conduct in one respect in that it involves awareness, but it is an awareness of risk, that is, of a probability less than a substantial certainty." In other words, the State will need to put forth evidence that Mr. Geiger was acting in a manner that would make it obvious to a reasonable person that it involves a high incident of risk. Proving that Mr. Geiger was driving under the influence of a solvent should be enough to satisfy this requirement.
The State's evidence will likely involve the medical examiner's office testifying as to the cause of death of the victim, the arresting officer testifying as to Mr. Geiger's condition upon arrival of the police, any statements made to the officer by Mr. Geiger, the evidence of the several "lime green 'whip it' cartridges", a lab technician to testify with respect to the contents of the "whip it" canisters and how exactly they are a solvent under the law, and finally the witnesses to the accident.
Tampering with Physical Evidence in a Felony Prosecution
A defendant is guilty of tampering with physical evidence in a felony prosecution if he has taken active steps to conceal, or otherwise make unavailable, certain physical evidence...like "whip it" cartridges for example. The goal of this concealment is to prevent the police or prosecution from being able to use that evidence against the defendant in the court in a felony prosecution. Pursuant to RSMo. § 575.100.2, a "person commits the offense of tampering with physical evidence if he or she...conceals any...thing with [the] purpose to impair its...availability in any official proceeding or investigation. [And it is a Misdemeanor charge] unless the person impairs or obstructs the prosecution or defense of a felony, in which case tampering with physical evidence is a class E felony."
In State v. Patterson, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District said, "the elements of the felony offense of tampering with physical evidence in the context of this case are (1) the destruction of a thing (pills), (2) with purpose, (3) to impair their availability in an investigation, and this tampering (4) resulted in the impairment or obstruction of a felony prosecution." There the defendant was accused of destroying pills in order to prevent a police officer from taking possession of the pills and having them tested and authenticated as a felony controlled substance.
With respect to Mr. Geiger's actions of taking the "whip it" cartridges and attempting to dispose of them in a nearby wooded area, the State may be able to show by witness testimony that his purpose was to prevent the cartridges from being available to the State in connection with its felony prosecution. The officer's testimony can be used to confirm where the cartridges were found, while the lab technician's testimony will be used to confirm that the cartridges contained a solvent. Add to this the witnesses' testimony to show that Mr. Geiger attempted to get rid of the evidence and the State should have sufficient evidence to prove their case in Court.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
In the American criminal justice system, the defendant is innocent until the State proves them guilty. What that means is that the Defendant does not have to do anything at trial. Mr. Geiger could sit there and let his attorneys cross-examine the State's witnesses, or not, the choice is his. If the Jury doesn't find either the evidence sufficient or the witnesses credible then the State will fail to prove Beyond a Reasonable Doubt each element of the charged crimes against the defendant.
What the Defendant Can Do
In preparing for a trial, a defendant has several options at his or her disposal. First off, in Mr. Geiger's case since a Felony Complaint was filed rather than an Indictment, he has the option of holding a Preliminary Hearing. This is a mini-trial where the Associate Circuit Judge determines whether there is sufficient evidence for the matter to be bound over to the trial court.
In addition to challenging the sufficiency of the State's case at the associate circuit level, Mr. Geiger has the ability to take advantage of the Discovery process. This will give him the ability to have his attorneys take depositions of the State's witnesses, i.e. getting their statements under oath before a trial.
His attorneys can also file Suppression Motions asking the Court to prohibit the State from using certain physical evidence or certain statements made by the Defendant. If successful the State will not be allowed to use that suppressed evidence at trial, making it that much more difficult to prove their case. The Court will require a Constitutional basis in order to justify such an extreme order. Typically, a defendant will allege that an arresting officer violated their Constitutional right to remain silent (5th Amendment), or their right to remain free from illegal searches or seizures (4th Amendment).
In putting forth his own defense at trial, the Defendant can have the Court issue subpoenas and force witnesses to testify who might otherwise wish to avoid getting involved. He can also have an expert witness take the stand in order to rebut the State's evidence with respect to the solvents. As a final matter, Mr. Geiger can choose to take the stand himself but of course this leaves him open to cross-examination by the Prosecutor. If he chooses not to take the stand the State cannot use that against him by suggesting to the Jury that it can infer Mr. Geiger's guilt from his silence.
If the Jury unanimously convicts Mr. Geiger of both counts, then the Court can sentence him from 3 years to 10 years on the Involuntary Manslaughter in the 1st degree charge; and up to 4 years for Tampering with Physical Evidence in a Felony Prosecution charge. The Court has the discretion to make Mr. Geiger serve those sentences at the same time, known as concurrent sentences, or back-to-back, which is called consecutive sentences. Alternatively, Mr. Geiger could be convicted but receive a Suspended Execution of Sentence, otherwise known as an SES. An SES permits a person convicted of a crime to serve probation rather than being incarcerated. If they violate the terms of their probation at all though, then the Court can still make them serve their sentence in prison.
If you or a loved one have been arrested and charged with Involuntary Manslaughter in the First Degree, call Anthony Bretz today to know what options you have. Learn how a strong defense can help you protect your Constitutional Rights and avoid serving years in prison.